The tone of this preview could change drastically between now and Oct. 9. I much prefer to do an in-depth preview at the end of training camp, when roster battles are settled. But duty calls -- publishin' ain't eazy, yo -- so here goes: Our initial "pre-preseason" preview, looking back at where the Islanders came from, where they are now, and where they'll be come April.
Where They've Been: 09-10 Recap
There was a point in January where the Islanders clung to 7th place in the East. That was in the middle of a 10-5-1 run. One can argue those were the result of a watered-down East and a fortunate month, but regardless they were important: They raised expectations. They gave this young team a taste of the race after Jan. 1. By the end, injuries, depth and regression combined to put the Isles right back where they'd been the previous two seasons: Bottom five.
Still, last year felt a little different. There were signs of progress, signs that Garth Snow's prospect-hoarding is paying off, and besides, the 18-point improvement -- to 79, the same total in Ted Nolan's final year -- had the feel of a certain upward trajectory. Should this team improve further? Absolutely, and the history of teams with #1 picks is on their side.
By how much? Well it's a complicated case. Lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. Lotta strands in the ol Lighthouse head, man. Luckily, we're adhering to a pretty strict, uh, pharmaceutical regimen to keep our mind limber.
What's Changed: Summer Cleaning
Part of the problem for me holding Garth Snow to the playoff aspirations he expressed last spring is that I assume they were based on the hope he'd nab one of the summer's prime defensemen free agents. That didn't happen. The fallback options were Mark Eaton, Milan Jurcina and best of all, the steal of James Wisniewski for a 3rd. That's an improvement, and real progress should be expected of young Jack Hillen and Andrew MacDonald, but collectively the upgrade may not be enough.
While every team needs to aim high -- and I'm sure Snow would still say on record that playoffs are the goal -- there's an old rebuilder's paradox here: Sure, you have to say you want the playoffs; sure, within the room as competitors you have to strive for the playoffs; but the reality is missing the playoffs at this stage is no disaster.
This team is pointed in the right direction, but players evolve at unpredictable rates. We just don't know how much better Tavares, Okposo, Blake Comeau, Josh Bailey and others will be, and if someone like Nino or Hamonic makes the team, we don't know how long it will take for them to be net positives.
Lotta Ins: Zenon Konopka, PA Parentau, Mark Eaton, James Wisniewski, Milan Jurcina. Plus: A healthy Doug Weight, perhaps the same for Rick DiPietro.
Lotta Outs: Richard Park (Switz.), Tim Jackman (Calgary), Freddy Meyer (Atlanta), Sean Bergenheim (Tampa Bay), Andy Sutton (trade deadline), Martin Biron (Smurfs), Jeff Tambellini (
- Aspiring Youth: Nino Niederreiter, Travis Hamonic, Matt Martin, Jesse Joensuu, Calvin de Haan, David Ullstrom.
Is that import/export of assets an upgrade? Definitely. Is it enough to push them to the playoffs? No, not on its own. So for that to happen, the youth will need to grow on the faster end of the spectrum, and the annual injury plague will need to be passed on to their Atlantic brethren.
Training Camp Battles
We covered these last week, but here they are:
Battles on the wings: Matt Martin vs. Jesse Joensuu vs. incumbent Jon Sim. Nino vs. hype. Parentau vs. the "next Matt Moulson?" label
- Battles on defense: Bruno Gervais and Andrew MacDonald's waiver exemption vs. up-and-comers
- Battles in goal: Roloson vs. Father Time; Rick DiPietro vs. Wounded Knee
Elephants in the Room
- So...uh, heard about the Lighthouse Project lately?
- Then where will this team be playing in 2015? And once that's decided, will spending increase, or will the Islanders be in a "wait for the venue and the new CBA" mode?
- If DiPietro should re-injure his knee or stay healthy but not regain his form...what then?
- Can Zenon really replace Richard Park's minutes, or is this where a healthy Weight factors in?
- Will the Islanders push Nino or de Haan or Hamonic into the show early? If Hamonic grabs a spot with his jaws and doesn't let go, which veteran goes?
- How long before Colin Campbell ignores a dirty hit on an Islander and then suspends Travis Hamonic for
driving while black"hitting while Islander"?
The Islanders, through this rebuild, are trying to break out of an up-and-down cycle in the 2000s where mediocrity has been the ceiling:
WebBard covered it best a few weeks ago, breaking the playoff picture down into who's a lock, who's a "no way," and who's on the bubble. For the Islanders to make it, everything would have to break right. Discussion in that post trended increasingly toward the reality that no one really knows, because the right combo of injuries can sink all but the best teams.
For me, I figure Washington, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Boston or Buffalo (or both?) as solid playoff spots. With Chris Pronger having an injury-delayed start, Philadelphia may be within a huge bubble of "maybe" teams like Carolina, Ottawa, Montreal -- perhaps even Tampa Bay or Atlanta and the Short Island Smurfs. Vesa-less Toronto should automatically improve, but I'm not sold on their vaunted-and-crowded defense, to say nothing of their top six.
So for me I see a few teams the Isles should clear, a few they might leap if things go well -- and a perfect storm of good Islanders' health and poor rivals' health is needed for them to make it to the top eight. It can happen, but I'm not betting on it, particularly given the difficult Atlantic Division. Too much needs to go right for it be a reality. So at this point, before a real training camp puck has been dropped, I'll say the Islanders finish in 10th in the East.
Of course, that doesn't mean I'm not hoping...
...Let's Go Islanders!